How to Accomplish a Failure: The Academic Toolkit

Fail Forward Week: Call for Failures

Consider applying for the Fail Forward Week we are organising, and join us for a week of celebrating our failures and finding ways to fail forward! Everyone fails at something. Most of us fail quite frequently. The good news is that failure is the way the human brain learns best. Through failure, we identify and focus on areas where we can improve. Failure encourages us to find new approaches to something, to change things up. It invokes creativity and new thought patterns. We learn and grow from our failures.

Fail Forward Week is a time to pause and reflect on the positive outcomes of failure and the necessity of failure in life. The challenge is not whether you can manage never to fail—you will fail at something—but in how you respond to your failures. Applicants are invited to send a shadow CV (two pages are enough…) and a letter of un-motivation (e.g. discouragement or depression). We would like participants to take on a serious commitment with the Fail Forward Week. Of course, due to a high number of submissions or simply because of better applications by others, you could risk being rejected.[1]

An experimental session on academic failures at the ESEH Conference in Tallinn

This blog, in collaboration with Johan Gärdebo, Gilberto Mazzoli, and Daniele Valisena, stems from an experimental session that we organized for the biannual conference of the European Society for Environmental History back in August 2019.[2] Two of us–Daniele and myself–submitted the idea for a “Thanks, but no thanks” session, and got accepted. Daniele ended up failing to board his flight to Tallinn. But instead of cancelling the session, Gilberto and Johan offered to help host it. With the four of us joining forces and ideas–Daniele via Skype though–we managed to make this session great(er) again.

Our proposal for the “Thanks, but no thanks” session:

The academic job market keeps getting tighter for historians–the only certainty to this academic life is failure. From early career positions’ rejections–95% failure rate of ERC grants and about 15% success rate of Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship programmes–to the constant struggles with journal peer reviewers, the spectre and the reality of fiascos are life-long travel companions of any researcher. Healing and overcoming the sense of failure is high in several universities’ agenda, especially in the UK, and this means that we are addressing much more than matters of a personal nature.

Surprisingly enough, failures are often invisible and we give others the impression that most things work out for us. Our CVs and our institutional introductions do not reflect the bulk of our academic efforts—they do not mention failed exams, unsuccessful PhD or fellowship applications, or papers never accepted for publication. At conferences, we talk about the one project that worked, not of the multitude that failed. With the ambition of developing an experimental alternative, we invite both young and established scholars to “kill our darlings,” our glittered as much as rare successes; to “stay with the failure” and write the blank lines of our CVs, share our rejected but beloved research projects. We argue that success in present-day academia happens at the expenses of something else. We are always searching for a brand-new concept while being interested in practices, for pushing forward the boundaries of a research field or even establishing a new discipline while campaigning for multi/trans/post-disciplinary approaches. We long for a project to be granted rather than for a grant for our own project. Personal stories of failures–due both to rejection and to selection–on the academic job market reminds us that failure is part of the process of learning, which in turn can inspire colleagues to pick themselves up after a rejection and start again.

Join us if you do not mind sharing your three-minute story of academic failure (possibly in a funny, ironic and constructive way) and methods that have helped you deal with frustration and academic pressure. Do we need to feel ashamed of ourselves for our micro- and macro-academic disasters, professional dismay, and personal failure? Do we need to hide and dismiss our divergent personal and professional trajectories in order to fulfill and nurture an abstract model of scholar? “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Personal stories of ordinary failures

The long journey to the PhD, or failing at the national and continental scales. We all have stories of failures, these are ours…

1. A Video-story… by Daniele

2. A Graphic-storyby Gilberto

Most of our applications–and the time we devoted to them–were simply swallowed by a black hole in the academic universe and I called this ineluctable pole of attraction “the black hole of academic failures.” I presume that yours also is (I’d better write are) there. To stick with this cosmological metaphor, I rearranged my 2015-2017 attempts to become a PhD candidate in these two circles of rejection (they should resemble the nine circles of the Inferno): most of my applications did not make to the second level, namely the job interview, and only one turned out to be stellar. Ironically, the successful one was not even the last submitted applications… You can never know… This Dantesque infographic sums up all my failed attempts to get a PhD scholarship before I “came forth to see again the stars” (Dante, Inferno XXXIV, 139). Luckily, I failed only for two-and-a-half, and all these attempts could fit into one circular diagram. Otherwise, I should have designed another typology of diagram to graphically show all my failures at a glance. This graphic-story demonstrates that failures, if nothing else, enhance your creativity…

3. An Interview-story… by Roberta

After your PhD, there are good chances that your failure will go global. Mine did.
In my naively optimistic vision of the future and in the midst of full unawareness, before submitting my PhD thesis (by the way I was a PhD candidate at the University of Bari, Italy), I submitted a post-doctoral project proposal to a US university. I still like that project but I was not a strong candidate. Guess what? I got shortlisted and the committee scheduled my interview. I was literally scared; I rehearsed with a British teacher and I tried to prepare myself for likely-to-be-posed questions. I knew how to describe my background, how to introduce my PhD research, how to defend my project proposal. The job interview started. First question: ok, done. Second question: “what is your teaching philosophy?” It was not even about what to reply, it was mainly that I could not understand the question, it simply did not make any sense to me. I had always thought that teaching was a job rather than a philosophy. I asked the board to reframe the question and when they asked “What happens if you are in front of 100 students? How do you lead the class?” I looked at them and I told the truth: “In front of 100 students, honestly, I freak out.” I got an email from the head of the selection committee a couple of weeks later saying that they had opted for the other candidate and we had a nice email exchange. Of course, it was a failure, but it was an empowering failure.

Meta-academia, namely, reflecting on failures

Sharing failures is an emerging practice in academia: blogs, keynotes, psychological support provided by institutions, and researches all demonstrate that failing is not an accident but it is an obligatory step for those who survive in this environment. How many times should a scholar fail before quitting and stepping out? No answer to that, everyone has his/her/their threshold, but whenever we fail, we should get connected and get organised, instead of only getting angry and feeling flustered. Failures are not single individual stories, they are a structural element of academic life and a collective experience.

The Twitter account @AcademicsSay, with its more than 300,000 monthly visitors, has far more social media readers that just any academic publication. It’s a novelty account that posts primarily humorous tweets about the challenges, realities, peculiarities, and absurdity of academic life. Common topics are different ways, scales, levels of failures.[3] Maybe we can bring these hints into our everyday departmental lives, make room for this kind of discussion, and help each other fail better.

Every strong argument has been a week argument at an early stage and now you know that there is a space for it in academia. Submit your ideas to our journal “Weak Arguments Weekly” and after a fair and open peer review process, we bet that you will get published.

[1] This is not a completely fake call. To find out what is real and what is made up, check here.

[2] The authors remain committed to inclusivity with regard to race, ethnicity, gender, gender expression and identity, sexual orientation, and physical abilities in terms topics discussed at their blog.

[3] Data from: Camilla Vásquez, Language, Creativity and Humour Online (London, UK: Routledge, 2019).